There are several approaches we could take in regard to Jesus and organized religion. We could speak about Him promising to “build My church” (Matthew 16:18). We could look at His words to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3 and discuss how, despite the failings of some of the groups, He claims them all. Moreover, He sees them as responsible for each other so he doesn’t address them as individuals but rather as congregations. I’m also convinced that He sees them for what they can become and knows they won’t be able to reach that by themselves—they’ll need the strength that can only come through community.
For our purposes though, I think Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 might be most helpful. Why? If we think about it, our goal in talking about Jesus and church isn’t really to merely make the point that He approved of organized religion because if we listen carefully, most people aren’t against church per se—what turns them off is the preoccupation that some groups have with money, power, traditions, and politics (the same kind of stuff that disgusted Jesus). His expose’ of the religious practices of His time (along with the positive principles we can learn) will resonate with those disaffected while at the same time helping them see the right ways to practice community and the blessings that come from it. With this in mind, let’s look at Matthew 23.
#1 – Jesus was for putting our lives under the authority of God’s word and against hypocrisy.
2The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat (i.e., they read from the law God gave through Moses). Remember, at this time in history Scripture is on hand-written scrolls. It’s a laborious process and scrolls are costly to produce. Private ownership is virtually unheard of. When the religious leaders read from Moses, the people are to pay attention and practice the things they hear because they are from God.
While it’s become quite fashionable in some circles to mythologize the Scripture or hold it up to ridicule by taking isolated passages out of context, Jesus would have none of that. Over and over, He affirmed Scripture as the word of God which could not be broken (Mathew 5:17ff; John 10:34ff). He turned to it in times of temptation (Matthew 4:4ff), as well as for consolation (Mattthew 22:31-32). He noted that those who shut themselves off from Scripture miss out on the power of God (Matthew 22:29).
Sadly, the teachers of the law and Pharisees didn’t model obedience as leaders should. Furthermore, in their teachings (distinct from their reading of Scripture), they drifted from God’s word and substitute their own traditions—excessive rules that burdened rather than blessed (see Matthew 15:1-13). In doing this, they were exalting themselves rather than God and building a power-base that serves them rather than others. This was not what God intended or what Jesus modeled (Matthew 20:26-28).
With these comments Jesus does something profoundly important—He candidly addresses the abuses of organized religion in His time without jettisoning the idea of a community of people bound together by their faith and love. We all recognize the difference between things that are inherently bad (drug cartels, sex traffickers, sweatshops, etc.), and things that are good but can be abused (government, marriage, parenting, etc.). The first you try to eradicate, the latter you try to improve. According to Jesus, church and religion belong in the second category. Eradicating them is not the answer, improving them is!
Even though many of the leaders of religion of His day were hypocrites, Jesus did not counsel people to give up church. He told them to stay sensitive to their responsibilities to God and avoid the hypocrisy of others. This wasn’t an easy easy course then, but it was the right thing to do.
It still is.